What are the chances of an Israeli-born ballet dancer ending up as business dean at the University of Saskatchewan? That is Daphne Taras's story, reflecting a career packed with improbable twists. Ms. Taras, recently appointed dean of the university's Edwards School of Business, moves to Saskatoon from Calgary at a time when Saskatchewan is basking in economic renewal. Ms. Taras, 53, comes with strong credentials as a teacher of industrial relations, which should serve her well in a province steeped in the tradition of prairie co-ops, Crown corporations and labour unions.
Did you know when you took undergraduate political science, you'd end up as a business school dean?
Never. And I actually entered York University as a classical ballet chick, a fine arts major. I'm one credit short of finishing a dance degree there.
I'm not much of a long-term planner, so I go with opportunities. As they say, opportunity favours the prepared mind. If you are just scanning for good stuff, it doesn't matter if it is in ballet, poli-sci, labour relations or as dean - there are always great career holes that can be filled.
There are some people who start out with a passion for what they do and they stick with it their entire careers, but I'm not one of them. I'm one who worked really hard to find a way. Whenever you're blocked, you find a way.
Have you ever worked in Saskatchewan before?
No. Every single person in Saskatoon, when they learn I just moved here, says, "Oh, are you rejoining your family?" or "Where are you from in the province?" But I say, "No, I really have zero reason to be here except that the city is at a takeoff point." They look really skeptical. But my first message to Saskatchewan is: "Get over it. People are moving in."
In this province, they absolutely think [the population influx]is just people coming home and that is enough of a victory for them. But there are people who move to where success is and they don't need a family reason - they move for opportunity.
So the economic takeoff was a big reason you applied for the job?
For me, yeah. I spent 25 years in Toronto and 25 years in Calgary, and with that experience, there is a nice sense of when a city reaches a tipping point. You just know it's poised and this province is at that point.
For a business school dean, aren't you an odd duck academically?
I am. In the U.S., there are a lot of deans of business schools who are colleagues of mine in the field of industrial relations. We have the managerial skills and we are very sensitive to labour relations. A lot of us get involved in being associate deans and helping run places.
It makes a lot of sense, except there is this notion in Canada that to be a dean, you have to come out of finance or economics. In the U.S. there are a lot of us, and in Canada I'm now one of the few.
Has your career in business schools been affected by your specialization?
There is always the worry when you bring people in from labour relations that they might be too radical for a business school. Even if they are just slightly left, they may be too radical. But that's not the way I managed my career. Within my own discipline I'm very mainstream. I've done my whole career in a business school and I have an MBA. I can talk the talk.
Didn't I read that, at the University of Calgary, you once used deception to spur business students into organizing themselves like union members?
You have to have cojones to walk into a class and know you are deliberately going to aggravate the students. Well, we did it with four classes of 60 students. If you can do that, you can do anything to business students.
So you antagonized them so much, they organized?
Yes, but without being nasty. I was really apologetic that their professor had been suspended but, unfortunately, I'd taken over the class and we'd all have to live with it. And I'd changed the course outline. "You are going to have to suck it up, because I have to mop it up," I said. I rehearsed it so it was a combination of being totally compassionate and patronizing as hell. That combination was so aggravating to them. "Let me explain to you why I can't listen to you any more," I said.
What did the students do?
They began signing a petition in front of me, which I gave them lots of incentive to do. Then in the middle of their signing it, I said, "This is a hoax and now you know what it feels like to be an Enron employee." But Enron wasn't a hoax - it really happened and people lost their pensions and their lives.
This class exercise wasn't just about labour relations. I did it because business students shouldn't develop a cavalier attitude towards their own employees. Bosses have a responsibility.
So now we lose another great teacher from the classroom?
I will be teaching as much as I can as part of my dean's duties.
Do you have goals for the school?
I want to see this school accredited and joining the industry in that respect. So there is this accreditation body we are looking at, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. I plan to have our application done in September so we will be in play.
And the school is turning 100 in 2014. Has there ever been a luckier dean in terms of timing?
I want to position us so that we are producing professionals. We have a great masters of professional accounting program, which is very large. The MBA market meanwhile, is rather saturated. We can have a good MBA program, but there are lots of MBAs out there. And this school has had a very strong accounting direction.
And you will see a lot from me in making the integrity of Saskatchewan a competitive advantage at this school.
What do you mean by integrity of Saskatchewan?
Everybody in Alberta knows there are major business leaders who came from Saskatchewan. All the accounting firms are completely staffed with people from Saskatchewan. And they like them.
I called a number of places that hire graduates and I asked: When you are in recruiting mode, what do you look for? "We look for kids from Saskatchewan," they say, "because they have a great work ethic and no entitlement mentality."
And that's the brand. They are good, they are competent, they work hard and they don't have an entitlement mentality. They can help you build.
Unionization is less prevalent now in the working world. Given that, does the typical MBA graduate really think much about labour issues?
I don't think so. But first, put aside the whole issue of union density [the extent workers today are unionized] It is the labour relations toolkit that I teach aggressively in class. I teach about industrial justice; how to be consistent; how to be fair; how to have your decisions scrutinized. Would you be able to articulate a defence against that decision if you were being heard in a court or by a labour arbitrator?
Even in the Edwards school I would like to see more initiative on dispute resolution, on negotiation - on basically taking the labour relations toolkit and making it work.
MBA students are not interested in learning about unions. That's a very hard sell, even though there is a small subset that work for the public service, and they are certainly interested.
But there are ways of teaching it. I just finished a spring class where I taught all this stuff. I didn't call it labour relations. I called it good management.
And what are the principles?
Fairness, consistency of decisions, finding opportunities and making sure the opportunities are fairly spread among the people qualified for them. And being able to articulate why you make decisions the way you do.
Title: Dean, Edwards School of Business, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon.
Born: Israel, 53 years old.
Honours BA, political science, York University.
MA, political science, Duke University MBA and PhD from University of Calgary.
Master's of law in labour and employment law, Osgoode Hall Law School.
Began academic career in 1994.
Held a number of positions at University of Calgary, including a professorship in public policy and associate dean (research) at UofC's Haskayne School of Business.
2004: Won dean's award for contributions to PhD program.
2004-2006: Expert adviser to the Federal Labour Standards Commission.
2010: Appointed dean of the Edwards School